Between 2014 and 2017, the United States Treasury paid $84,000 to settle a claim of sexual harassment brought against Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. Between 2008 and 2012, roughly $174,000 in settlement money was released over possible harassment allegations against other House offices. And in the past two decades, taxpayers shelled out $14,260.25 for a claim of either sexual harassment or sex discrimination against one Senate office.
We know this information only because the House and Senate requested and released the settlement records from the Office of Compliance, which handles employee complaints on Capitol Hill. Both chambers’ decision to publish the settlement information is a welcome step forward for transparency and accountability. But the difficulty of releasing the data is a reminder of how desperately Congress needs to hold itself to higher standards on sexual harassment and assault.
After the national reckoning over sexual harassment reached Congress, the House led the way on transparency: The House Administration Committee published the OOC’s records of settlements reached against House offices from 2008 onward. The Senate lagged. With little explanation, the OOC refused requests from the Senate Ethics Committee and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to provide Senate-side data. Eventually, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Appropriations Committee released the OOC records on their own.
Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., initially held back over concern that the OOC data contained inaccuracies. In publishing it, he made the right decision - but it’s true that the information is incomplete. The OOC hasn’t kept track of settlements that might have been paid out of lawmakers’ office budgets, a tactic used bythen-Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich. Some OOC records don’t distinguish between complaints of sexual harassment as opposed to sex discrimination. And the OOC is prohibited by law from sharing more specific information. We know that the $84,000 claim was reached against Farenthold only through independent reporting.
It should not be this difficult for members of the public - or, for that matter, lawmakers - to learn about sexual harassment settlements in Congress funded with taxpayer money. Reform is badly needed, both to increase transparency and to end the culture of impunity that leaves elected representatives like Farenthold feeling free to harass their staffers and then blackball them from other opportunities in Washington.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voiced support for reform along the lines of legislation by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., which would streamline the harassment reporting process and mandate greater transparency for settlements. Speier and Gillibrand propose requiring yearly disclosures of which offices settlements were reached against. Members of Congress who are the subject of complaints would also need to fund their own settlements instead of reaching into the Treasury.
Congress must take up these reforms. Lawmakers have a responsibility to hold themselves accountable, both to the public and to victims of sexual harassment and assault on Capitol Hill whom the current system has failed.